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2014 Sarah D. Barder Conference

The Impact of Teacher-Leaders: Observations from the Sarah D. Barder Conference

By Andrew Moss, CTY Summer Programs, Program Manager

This past March, the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, laid out his vision for bringing greater leadership opportunities to teachers. Noting that their lack of influence over educational policies results in teachers moving from the classroom to administration, Secretary Duncan acknowledged that in recent years, “the only way to have a say in the direction of education, was to stop teaching children — stop doing what you love most and move out of the classroom and into administration.” He then challenged state and local administrators to develop initiatives that would foster teachers’ ability to lead. He discussed occasions for having teachers conduct professional development, work with policy makers to develop strong education practices, and voice constructive feedback regarding new curricular initiatives. His message was clear: empowering teachers is the best way to better America’s educational system.

The idea of the teacher-leader is not groundbreaking; many schools and universities have department chairs that oversee particular disciplines. But as Secretary Duncan indicated in his speech and the Department of Education noted in its RESPECT Program, the influence department chairs as well as veteran teachers have over school policies and even their own classrooms has waned in recent years. And yet, with decisions controlled by administrators, some have wondered whether teachers are prepared for heightened responsibility if given a renewed role.

If my recent experience at the Sarah D. Barder Conference is any indication of teachers’ preparation, the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”

I had the pleasure of attending the SDB conference only a week after Secretary Duncan’s remarks. In twenty-four hours I discovered the positive and pronounced effects empowered teachers have on their students. Here it was evident that teacher-leaders were, are, and will continue to be a force in their schools. They are at the forefront of using new educational initiatives such as Three-Act Math, Focused Student Reflection, and Edmodo. They also spearhead creative ventures to demonstrate the importance of real-world application to class concepts and understand the necessity of differentiating instruction according to students’ needs. In each case, SDB Fellows spoke at length how these strategies invigorated their classrooms and challenged students of all abilities, especially those with academic talents, to maximize their potential.

Also impressive was Fellows’ dedication to sharing their experiences and ingenuity. They were committed to fostering entire academic communities so that their schools, not just their own classrooms, were bettered. One Fellow described how he instituted academic after-school clubs such as Quiz Bowl so that students interested in extracurricular academics had a place to nurture their love of learning in a safe environment. Another Fellow described how he shared his use of the Socratic Method to teach critical thinking so that colleagues could implement the strategy in their own classrooms. These are but two of the many examples shared at the conference. Support for students’ educational enrichment such as scholastic field trips, professional internships, and academic Olympiads, combined with providing peer teachers with educational best practices, demonstrated Fellows’ commitment to growing academic environments built around collaboration, safety, and a passion for learning.

Forum discussions also proved enlightening and engaging. One especially lively talk involved the role of academic risk-taking and, by extension, the definition of failure. Hearing instructors equally dedicated to their students’ growth debate failure’s connotation and its use as a learning tool was powerful. It touched upon the value of persistence and grit as well as high-performing students’ perception that society expects academic perfection. Yet regardless of the topic discussed, Fellows’ comments exemplified the value of teachers’ experiences. Whether exchanging thoughts regarding intrinsic motivation, asynchronous development, or how to balance the value of assessments and projects, Fellows’ contributions highlighted best practices as well as offered differing, yet equally successful, approaches to addressing classroom challenges.

Yet what struck me most was that these Fellows, attending the conference as recognized master educators, understood there was still much they could learn from one another. Recognizing the specialized talents in others and asking for advice on how best to teach a particularly perplexing concept, to intertwine art and media into English or Math, or to engage a talented student who questions the purpose of formal education, Fellows exhibited camaraderie and learning. It was a conference about collaboration, not competition.

Towards the end of his talk on teacher leadership, Secretary Duncan said, “Teachers must shape what teaching will become.” Nowhere was this more evident than at the SDB Conference. Empowering teachers and placing them in leadership positions will result in better educational initiatives and pedagogical practice, foster opportunities for curricular creativity, and put renewed focus on student-centered learning.